Bill Mounce

For an Informed Love of God

Exegetical Insight #2 (Chapter 21)

The imperfect form of the verb is usually described as having reference to continued action in past time (I was loosing) in contrast to the aorist form that denotes simple past (I loosed). But the Greek imperfect may have other shades of meaning that are not always easy to establish and that may depend largely upon context.

One of these variations is known as the inceptive imperfect, which is found frequently in the New Testament. In Mark 1:21, for example, the NIV reads, “Jesus went into the synagogue and began to teach.” This seems to be a natural reading of the text.

In other places this is not immediately evident but might perhaps be intended. Luke’s “Emmaus Road” resurrection narrative is a case in point. The two disciples of Jesus who were returning to Emmaus after their Passover visit to Jerusalem were joined by an apparent stranger. In the ensuing conversation they communicated the deep hopes they once had concerning Jesus and his significant role in their religious tradition.

The usual translation of Luke 24:21 is, “We had hoped (ηλπιζομεν) that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel”(NIV). This suggests to the reader that these disciples once held such an opinion but that the recent events that led to Jesus’ death now ruled out such a possibility. However, if in fact what we have here is the inceptive imperfect then the text could be translated, “We were beginning to hope that he was the one who was going to redeem Israel.”

We often represent the contemporaries of Jesus as people who had a clear understanding of his message and mission. Here there is pause for thought. Even with such close contact the entire story is not self evident. The disciples had a glimmer of insight—but more was needed to bring that to a firm faith.

E. Margaret Howe